Monday, August 27, 2012

I will start this week by admitting to being the worst son ever. I have never known my parents birthdays and apparently magically remembering them is not a blessing that comes with becoming a missionary. My mom’s birthday was this last week and I wanted to wish her a happy late birthday. I don’t know what she did to end up getting stuck with me as a son but she has done an amazing job of loving me no matter what. I know that I speak for all of her kids when I say that we could never have asked for a better mom. Also I know that means my dad’s birthday is coming up in a few days so happy birthday dad! I also want to thank my sisters for the endless yards of licorice I got in the mail this week and the giant air heads. Needless to say I had to brush my teeth a few extra times this weekend but it was worth it.

This week was a great one. Lots of really cool and fun things happened. On Tuesday we got to have our interviews with the president. It may only be for like 5 minutes but getting to talk to him is always a huge blessing. The day after interviews we had our exchanges with the assistants. I spent the day with Elder Christensen and it was a really good day. I didn’t know him very well before so it was good to get to know him and to learn from him. He was the AP at 9 months so he knows how I feel being a young leader. He had a lot of really helpful things to talk to me about.

At the beginning of the day of exchanges we had the chance to go up to Alton and have a zone meeting. There is an investigator in Alton who is a Baptist minister right now. He gave a special talk and we got to have a Q and A with him about how we could help people. It was really cool to hear his side of the story. He isn’t a member yet but he loves the missionaries and is working to get baptized right now. The minister’s son after the meeting thought it would be funny to give us some special taffy. It is called wildfire taffy. I think they said it is 10 times the power of a fireball candy. They didn’t tell us this until after we ate it of course, and they also told us after that you have to be 18 to buy it. So I can say that I have eaten, turned red faced, and cried over a candy you have to be 18 to buy.

Later that night we went to a place called Lotawata Creek, probably the best place ever. In the Midwest a huge food out here is called a horseshoe. It is pretty much just a bun with hamburger and fries on it covered in cheese sauce and whatever else you want on it. So we went out to eat and I got a chili filled horse shoe and Elder Christensen got a heart attack burger. The burger has 7 pieces of cheese on it and they dip the entire thing, bun and all, in batter and deep fry it. Neither of us got more than half way done with our food and we both felt like dying after. We asked the cook and he said the whole thing probably had about 5000 calories in it. It was great.

We have had an interesting week with animals this week too. It seemed like there was an extra amount of dogs this week. Normally dogs aren’t too bad. Me and Elder Christensen went to an city called Cahokia and like 75% of people there have pit bulls. I think that pit bulls are the coolest dog in the world so I always go over and play with them. We walked up to some ladies house and she had a big slobbery smiling pit bull on the front porch. I went up and let him smell my hand and he seemed really friendly so I went to start to pet it. I know for a fact that God had to protect me because that thing lost its mind. God must have made my reflexes super fast for that second because I have no idea how I got my hand out of that dog’s mouth before it clamped down. My heart was definitely pounding as we ran down the driveway to get away from it, but at least it gave us something to laugh about the rest of the day.

On a more spiritual note Cahokia was a great place to go. The people there are pretty much dirt poor but they are super humble. We tract for at least a few hours a day and have found very little success. But in Cahokia we spent 3 hours going up and down 1 street and got 5 return appointments and 2 new investigators. It was a really good day and now we are just hoping and praying that when we go back on Thursday a couple of them are actually home.

This week has been a real testimony builder for me and it has been an amazing experience to finally start to really get into the swing of things. I am really starting to love my mission. For the first time I can actually say I’m not jealous of the missionaries who are going home this transfer. I am so thankful for the time that I have left to stay out here and serve the Lord.

I want to end by talking about something that the Baptist minister talked about. He said there are 2 kinds of faith, faith that informs and faith that transforms. It kinda goes along with what I talked about last week. If we just have faith to go to church and be a Mormon then we are going to be informed. We will know what to do and most of the time we will probably do it. But we need to change ourselves and have the faith to transform. We need to transform our lives and base them completely on the gospel. Before my mission and at the very start I always thought that only missionaries could focus on the gospel 24/7. I have thankfully been proven very wrong. I know that normal people have jobs and school and stuff like that to worry about. But I have met people out here who have dedicated their lives to God and they always know what to put first. Those people without fail are the happiest people I meet out here. They know that regardless of what they have to give up God will provide. I hope and pray that I can be like that every day for the rest of my mission and for the rest of my life. And just as much I hope and pray for each of you to be able to make the same change.

-Elder Banks

Thanks for everything and I will send you my SD card soon. Love ya! P.S. president told me I had to brag to you and tell you that I am the youngest zone leader in the mission.

Monday, August 20, 2012

This has been a really interesting week for me so far. I have really started to learn a lot and learn to love Fairview Heights. I have no idea how I love it here so much. But I am really thankful that I do. It has been a really interesting situation to go from Jacksonville where we had 21 member present lessons my last week there to Fairview where we have had 3 since we got here. I could not be more thankful for the cool weather though. With hours of walking around talking to people each day it has been great to have some cooler weather. It is really obvious to me that God loves me a lot because He is blessing me with a love for the people and the area that I’m in. Elder Waldron has made it really fun to be here too. His first name is Matthew and he is just about to turn 22. 3 of my 4 companions so far have been 21 so apparently God knows that he has to put me with someone mature to balance me out. He played football and wrestled in high school and he goes to Weber state now. He is originally from Kaysville. He is kinda like Elder Jensen in the way that I can’t figure him out at all haha. It seems like every day I find out something new about him that throws me off. But he is a great guy and a great missionary. He has really taught me how to follow the Spirit.

Something that Elder Waldron told me on my first day here was that one of the most important things for a leader is to earn respect. He also told me how hard that is. Especially because I am like the 2nd youngest person in the zone so it’s going to be tough for people to look up to me. The first week I was here that was pretty tough. Everyone was nice enough but no one really took me that seriously it seemed like. This week it has been really fun to have the challenge of earning respect from everyone. One of the things that helped the most with that was our district leader zone leader meeting. It was an interesting experience because I had never even been to one before and then I had to organize and conduct one. It was a great learning experience. Me and Elder Waldron ended the meeting by giving a training on obedience and how that leads to our own personal conversion. The Spirit during and after the training was very powerful. The thing that made me really happy was in Subway after the meeting having a few of the district leaders come up and tell me how good of a training we gave. It was just one of those small things that made me feel really good and helped me to know that people are starting to respect and listen to what I have to say now as long as I am willing to give them the same respect.

Saturday was a crazy day that ended up being one of the best I have had so far. We started with DLZL which I just talked about. Then after that we had pretty much nothing. A really long day of knocking doors and appointments falling through. The very last thing that we did that night was check the mail. I was really excited to see that I had a letter from Elder Anderson. I knew that EJ and TJ were supposed to get baptized this last weekend and I was really curious if it had all worked out. I was thrilled to open it up to pictures of all of them in their white clothes. It sounded like everything went perfectly. But the thing that made me breakdown into tears of joy was what the letter said next. A couple weeks ago me and Elder Anderson decided to gather up some letters from around the ward and mail them out to Carlos (the investigator who was baptized but never confirmed). Turns out that last ditch effort was just enough. He contacted the missionaries and told them he wanted to come to church and receive the Holy Ghost. After being interview by the bishop and some other steps he was found worthy. I found out last Sunday EJ, TJ, Bryan, and Carlos were all able to receive the Holy Ghost. I do wish that I had been able to be there. But just finding out that they made those steps made me so happy. Carlos made a lot of sacrifices. When his mom found out he went to church she kicked him out of the house. He is living with some members of the ward right now from what I understand. That is not a small sacrifice, but he knew what was most important and he was willing to give up anything to get closer to Christ.

The good luck and great feelings from Saturday night continued right on through Sunday. We went to church which was great like always. Right after church there was a really cool experience though. A recent convert named Ron was called as a ward missionary. He is an older black guy who lives in the roughest part of our area. He has had a life full of trials but now full of blessings. He doesn’t have a car so he has to ride the bus and train for a couple hours to get to church each week. And the couple dollars that costs him is a huge sacrifice. But even though it’s hard he makes it to church every week. After church we got to sit in on his setting apart to his new calling. Being called as a ward missionary was cool to me but I didn’t really think of it as that big of a deal. About half way through the setting apart Ron started to bawl. It kinda shocked me and at first I was worried what was wrong. After we finished the setting apart I realized why he started to cry. He knew how much this gospel had changed his life. He knew how important it was. The fact that he now gets to be a part of the missionary effort and help change other people lives meant the world to him. It made me very thankful for the opportunity that I have to be a full time missionary. I have seen people’s lives change so much and seeing that has been an incredible blessing to me.

The last thing we did on Sunday was go and see Sis. Kremer. As always it was a great lesson with her. It is an amazing experience to get to see the smile on her husband’s face the entire time that we teach. The thought of getting to go through the temple with his wife in a year brings him so much joy. Sis Kremer could be the most golden investigator ever. She read the lessons in Preach My Gospel before we could even come over and teach them to her. We are so excited to see her get baptized. There wasn’t anything super special about the lesson on Sunday. No tear jerking moments or anything like that. But while I was there during the lesson I took just a minute pause to really think about what was going on. The feelings that I got are impossible to explain. Knowing that I played a part in changing this family’s life brought me so much joy. There is nothing else I could be doing right now that would bring me the joy and peace that this mission has brought me.

I want to end by just sharing a quick testimony about obedience. I have thought a lot about it this week and discovered that I have a lot of changes to make in my life. I have always known that being obedient was one of the most important things that a missionary could do. When I first got out I was obedient because I knew if I didn’t God would not be able to help me. And if you don’t have God on your side as a missionary you’re going to be miserable. After a few months I moved up to being obedient because I knew it was what I am supposed to do. Missionaries are supposed to be obedient. I thought that was the final step. However, recently I have discovered I have another reason to be obedient. I should be obedient out of love. Love for the people, love for my companion, and most importantly love for God. That has made a huge change in the way I look at missionary work. Anyone can be a good missionary, and almost anyone can be a great missionary. But great isn’t good enough. I need to be a consecrated missionary. The same thing applies to all of us as members of the church. Going to church and living the commandments simply because that’s what Mormons do isn’t good enough. Not even close. To become truly converted to this gospel we have to love our Heavenly Father and love the commandments that he has given us. When I realized this earlier this week it was a very humbling experience. I have a ton of work to do. And I have a feeling the better I get and the more I learn the more work I will realize I have to do. I know that all of us can become truly converted to this gospel and become consecrated members of the church. We have a promise from God that it won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.

-Elder Banks

Monday, August 13, 2012

Fairview Heights, Illinois

It feels like it has been about 5 years since I sent my last email home. This week has been really good and a ton has happened but it feels like it has gone on forever. The first few days of this week I was in Jacksonville. It was a really interesting couple days. Tuesday I went around and tried to see as many different people as possible. It was really tough to say goodbye to all of them. Tuesday was a huge reason that this week felt like it went on forever. Leaving an area is one of the strangest and hardest things I have had to do on my mission so far.

Wednesday was transfer day. I packed up all my stuff and headed out to St. Louis. We had a really good transfer meeting this time. We had 5 missionaries come into the mission and 20 leave. It was a big chunk of people leaving because some went home a transfer early so they could sign up and go to school. Overall we lost 15 missionaries this transfer so it has caused quite the change in the mission. A bunch of areas have closed and tripanionships have turned back into companionships. Wednesday was the first day time that I met Elder Waldron. He has been an awesome companion so far. We get along really well and we have a lot of fun together. Like I said before he goes home at the end of this transfer. That comes with a lot of positives and some negatives as well. It is awesome because he has 23 months of experience to share with me. I have learned so much over these last few days it’s crazy. The only thing that is a little bit distracting is that we always have the only 6 weeks left thing over our heads. It never slows us down or distracts us but it is always there in the back of our minds. I am really thankful that he is willing to work hard to finish out his mission though.

Being called as a zone leader has been a really interesting experience. Just like pretty much everything else it comes with a bunch of ups and downs. Before I got to Fairview Heights I was thinking the positives would be I would almost always be put in a good area (so our area can be the example) and I would almost always have a good companion. I wasn’t so excited to have to deal with problems in the mission and a whole bunch of meetings and paper work. The first few days in our new area were definitely not what I expected. I found out that we were white washing so I am still yet to find out what it’s like to get a new area without doing that. Elder Waldron was the zone leader in this zone before but he was in a different area. They decided that it was time to change things up a little bit so they moved the zone leader area.

When we got to the apartment it was not looking so good. The apartment itself was a disaster. There was furniture everywhere and none of it was clean. Every single table and desk has about 50 names of past missionaries carved into it and pretty much everything was covered in dust and everything else you can imagine. That wasn’t the best of starts. Then we found a piece of paper that told us about the area a little bit. It was really, really negative. The main thing that stuck out to me is that the past elders said that the ward is very unhelpful. They never seem to want to do any kind of missionary work. As you can probably guess we weren’t doing too great after we saw all of that. The first few days were really long. We had a ton of planning to do and cleaning to do. For probably the first 2 days we cleaned, planned, and tracted. It got old real fast. The funny thing is I know that God knew that’s what we needed. We hated our new area a lot and that was the one thing that seemed to bring our companionship closer together. It didn’t seem like we had any support from anyone except for each other so we supported each other as much as we possibly could.

The week really got a lot better on Sunday. We headed out to church and we sat down in ward council to talk about the missionary work. From reading the letter and talking to a couple people on the phone we fully expected it to be awful. We could not have been more wrong. This ward is amazing. They have been feeding the missionaries really well recently. But we told them that the purpose of the dinner calendar isn’t to get us into members’ homes to eat. It is to get us into less active and part member homes to find new people to teach. That idea isn’t usually loved by most wards that hear it but they jumped right on it. They looked at the less active part member list and instantly assigning people to make calls. By the end of church we already had 3 part member dinner appointments set up for the coming weeks. This has all really been a testimony to me of what working hard as a missionary can do. The missionaries in the past didn’t work very hard and felt like it was the ward against them. We came in this week just wanting to do what is right and the ward has been behind us 100 percent. And the best part about the ward is that their church looks like the inside of a boat. Probably not on purpose. But every time we go into the chapel it feels like we are in a Viking ship. It’s pretty sweet.

After church we went to teach a part member family the Kremers. We were really excited to go to this lesson because we hadn’t been teaching very much and we knew this was a great opportunity. She had taken the lessons before from other missionaries but it just hadn’t really worked out. She came to church and liked it alright. Teaching her the first lesson was an amazing experience. She understood everything and it all made sense to her but nothing too special was happening. Then we got to the Joseph Smith story and the Spirit was so strong there is no way anyone could deny it. Taking advantage of the amazing feeling everyone in the room had we invited her to be baptized. Miraculously she accepted. Sister Kremer has a date set for the 1st of September. I am so thankful to God for putting great people into my path so far on my mission. I have had the opportunity to teach so many amazing people and I am glad that the blessings are continuing to come.

Going from Jacksonville to Fairview Heights has been a pretty huge change. In Jacksonville I was one of 4 missionaries in a district and the closest companionship was about 40 minutes away from us. In our new area we preside over about 20 missionaries and there are companionships within 10 minutes of us in every direction. I have loved getting to be around so many other missionaries. Very rarely a day goes by that we don’t get to hang out with other elders.

The area itself is a little interesting. Fairview Heights is right next to East St Louis so we have some very rough areas. Thankfully in our area we can just stay on the good half of the city and be alright. Last night I got a real wake up call to what the world is really like though. The East St Louis elders called us at about 8: 30 and told us they were stuck in the city and didn’t have a way home. They had missed their bus and would have had to wait for a while to catch the next one. Not wanting to make them sit in the dark in one of the most dangerous cities in America we went to pick them up.

Sitting in the passenger seat of that car and looking around at what we were driving through that city made my heart heavy. We drove through a small city of about 4500 people. On the main street alone we drove past 8 strip clubs. Driving through the neighborhoods and seeing the way those people live is hard to even look at. Taking the other elders back to their apartment we drove past a bus stop. Elder Hart said "That bus stop is where we missed our bus a few days ago because some guys got mowed down by a machine gun."

I always thought it would be pretty cool to get to say I was in East St Louis after dark. It was a lot more sad than it was cool. It humbled me so much though. I don’t know why I am lucky enough to be blessed with the knowledge of this gospel but I am so thankful I am. Looking around the world and seeing how messed up everything is makes me want to share the gospel with everyone. The reason that we are willing to walk around in neighborhoods like that is because we know that the message we share can change someone’s life. No matter how far gone you seem to be the gospel can always bring you back. I am so thankful for this opportunity that I have to share this life changing message with everyone around us. We are all blessed more than we can imagine. It’s our job to never overlook that and to always serve and share as much of our happiness as we possibly can.

-Elder Banks

113 Union Hill Road #6
Fairview Heights, IL 62208

Monday, August 6, 2012

Goodbye Jacksonville, Hello Fairview Heights

Very first I have to say Happy Birthday to my sister Anne in just a couple days. I hope it is an awesome day. I’m sure you and Matt are going to some crazy country or something, but whatever you do I hope you love it.

This week nothing to grand or exciting happened in the first few days (except attempting to change Brother Michaels door knob) so I will just skip closer to the end of the week. On Thursday we got a mini missionary. It was great to have him with us because we constantly had a man and a member with us. So every lesson was a member present and we could meet with single women without having to call someone from the ward. His name was Brother Chandler and he was awesome. He is going to be a great missionary in 3 years when he is old enough to go.

Saturday night is where all of the craziness from the weekend really begins. We had exchanges on Saturday so I spent all day with Elder Schriver and that was really fun. It was a pretty long day though because we both knew that later that night we were going to be getting transfer calls, and we would find out what we were going to be doing for the next 6 weeks. After sitting on my bed holding the phone for what seemed like forever we finally got the voicemail letting us know what was going to happen. We got the news for the entire zone and it was pretty fun to hear. We heard about Pittsfield and what’s happening to them first. Elder Cooper is headed out to serve in O' Fallon Missouri as a district leader so he is going to have a blast doing that. Elder Schriver is staying in Pittsfield.

The time that my heart really started pounding was when the zone leaders said that Elder Anderson was staying in Jacksonville and his new companion was Elder Foster. So at that point I knew I was gone. The next thing I heard was Elder Banks you are going to go serve in Fairview Heights with Elder Waldron as your new companion. I calmed down for a second after I heard that because I figured that I was set, but then the news that really put my stomach in knots came. They said that Fairview Heights is the new zone leader area in the O' Fallon zone and me and Elder Waldron are the new zone leaders. They said a few things after that but to be honest I have no idea what it was.

I recently read a talk by President Uchtdorf and it was his very first talk as a new apostle. I remember him talking about how humbled and inadequate he felt to be called to his new calling, and now I know a lot how he feels just on a much smaller scale. In my head zone leaders are people who have been out for a year and a half and know everything. Not elders who have been out for 6 months and don’t know anything. Needless to say I am really nervous and lost a few hours of sleep over the last few nights. But I have come to realize that no matter what I get called to do I know that God will help me out. I later found out that my new companion Elder Waldron has 6 weeks left on his mission so I am going to be his very last companion. It came as great comfort to know that my companion has been out for a while and will hopefully be able to help me out and teach me. I also thought it was pretty cool because Elder Jensen is in the same zone as me now so I hope he is a district leader and I can go on exchanges with him. I have no idea what the next 6 weeks have in store for me but I am excited to go out and learn. I don’t know much about my new area or the address I will be living at but next week I should know more and I will let you all know.

There were so many miracles in Jacksonville this week there is no way I have time to talk about all of them. But I will mention some of the ones that really stuck out to me. Church was the craziest 3 hours of my mission so far, emotionally at least. But I can safely say it was 3 of the best hours. Earlier this week we heard that Mary was in the hospital this week and they found a fairly serious heart problem and were going to be keeping her for a while. This was really sad news because she was supposed to get the Holy Ghost at church. We walked into church and the first person we went over and talked to was our ward mission leader, Brother Mathusek and he looked at us and said "Did you know Mary was going to make it today?" I can’t even explain the joy that went through me when I looked over and saw Mary sitting in her normal spot. She could barely walk but she knew she had to make it to church to get the Holy Ghost and nothing was going to stop her.

As the meeting started I was getting nervous because Betty wasn’t there yet and she has a habit of being late for church. Oh and by the way the fact that the church had cameras all over the building filming some church movie did nothing but add to the stress of the day. But anyways Betty wasn’t there yet and it was time for the confirmations. Mary made her way up and received a great blessing from Brother Michael. And just as I was about to look at the bishop and tell him Betty didn’t make it I took one last look at the door I saw her and her family walking in. If she had been 5 seconds later she would have been too late, but she made it. That was one of the best starts to a church block anyone could ever ask for. The rest of sacrament meeting was pretty much me just sitting in my seat bawling like a baby. Every time someone got up to bear their testimony i realized how much I was going to miss them. I finally started to pull myself together and then our ward mission leader got up. He has helped me out so much since I got here and has been an amazing friend to us. He bore his testimony about missionary work and thanked us for the hard work me and Elder Anderson had done together and I lost it. I don’t remember crying at all since I have gotten Elder Anderson as a companion but I definitely made up for it on Sunday. The rest of the church block was a lot easier though and it really was a Sunday that I won’t ever forget.

After church we had a baptism for Bryan Woods. He is the first of the 3 best friends Bryan, EJ, and TJ. I knew I wouldn’t be there for the other 2 so this one was extra special for me. Everything went perfectly and the Spirit was so strong just like it always is at a baptism. I was kinda sad knowing that I was going to miss 3 baptisms and 4 confirmations by less than 2 weeks but at the same time I knew God was sending me off for a reason and I had done what I needed to do in Jacksonville and now I was needed somewhere else. Last night (Sunday) we finished out the night by having a lesson at Terry Andersons house with Terry, TJ, EJ, Bryan, and us. Terry was having a pretty hard time because another one of his cousins was found dead. He has had that happen several times since I got here and started teaching him. But in that lesson the 6 of us all knelt down around the table and had Terry offer a prayer for us. I can’t do justice to that experience so I won’t even try. But I will just say it’s something I won’t ever forget.

I know this email is getting long but I just want to finish up by bearing my testimony about something my mom wrote me about this week. She read a talk about service and giving our all to the Lord. I recently read in True to the Faith under the baptism section. It talks about taking the name of Christ upon ourselves. These two topics are almost the same thing. When we were all baptised we promised to take Christ’s name upon ourselves and always live worthy of that. That is just another way of saying that we promised to completely forget ourselves and do everything we can to serve God. We always put His will above our own. Christ never turned down anyone looking for help. It doesn’t matter how annoying your neighbor is or how many terrible things your brother has said to you or anything else that you can think of. If we are going to live up to our baptismal covenant we must always do as the Lord would do and love the people around us and serve them as much as we can. We aren’t perfect and that is what the Atonement is for. God doesn’t expect perfection, but He does expect progression. We must always strive to do our very best. As all of us come up on new chapters in our lives with great changes ahead we all have to commit to progress. To change ourselves for the better and do what Christ would want us to do. I know without any doubt in my mind that this is the only way for us to find true happiness. I have come to know these things and I know that anyone who is willing to put in the work can know these things as well.

-Elder Banks